Is it possible to have a first-person narrator hiding a secret from the reader (and from other characters), which would be revealed at some point later in the story? And I mean not being an unreliable narrator. I can see how this could be done in third-person, but is there a good way to do this in first?
Hey Claudia, thanks for writing in!
The answer to your question is both yes and no, depending on what kind of narration you’re using. First, let’s assume you’re using an unfolding narration style. That means that the first-person narrator is conveying events as they happen in real time. Whether present tense or past tense, there’s no filter between the protagonist’s mind and the reader.
In this narration style, withholding information is extremely difficult. The advantage of an unfolding narration is that it’s super immersive, helping the reader feel as if they are in the protagonist’s shoes and experiencing the story. If the narrator withholds information from the reader, it will feel contrived and probably cause the reader a great deal of frustration.
On the other hand, you might be using a retelling narration. This style assumes that the narrator is telling a story about something that happened to them in the past. This style is less immersive because it puts a filter between the reader and the protagonist, but it allows for some additional wordcraft flare that would feel out of place in an unfolding story.
In a retelling narration, it is technically possible to withhold information without breaking your narrative premise. But, and this is a big but, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even in a retelling narrative, readers will enjoy being able to place themselves in the hero’s shoes. The story’s satisfaction comes from watching the hero overcome problems and figure out mysteries.
If it turns out that the hero had everything they needed all along, the story will lose a lot of satisfaction. Likewise, if they knew the details of some dramatic reveal all along, like that the villain is actually their sibling, readers can feel like the author is trying to trick them, which isn’t a recipe for enjoyment.
In the vast majority of cases, you want to give readers all the information they need to understand what’s happening, and that includes whatever relevant info the viewpoint character knows. Otherwise, the viewpoint characters actions may be confusing, since they’re acting on info that the reader doesn’t have. There are occasional exceptions, and they only work for short periods of time, but they should be used very carefully.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!